Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Performance Anxiety: How I worked with a sport psychologist to decrease my anxiety

Remember, when we are upset, with anxiety or stressed, it does affect our dogs. Some show it outwardly more than others. We get wrapped up in our succeeding, wrapped up in our desires and trying to impress for our egos, but instead we defeat ourselves and stress our dogs. Several people are unaware how much they stress their dogs when it comes to performance. Even if you are a positive trainer, your anguish, disappointment and stress is very punishing to a dog that is very in-tuned to you. I lived this and know this. Throughout the years I put a lot of stress on my dogs. In the later years I have gotten better, and finally fine tuning myself so any time I get to play with my dog is a joyous and fun bond building event. We are human and our dogs are canine. 

        The setting, a canine nose work trial. 

         It is my turn to go up to the starting line. I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. I scan the around the element to collect my thoughts how I will work the area. The moment is still. Eyes all on me and my dog waiting for our first move. I cue my dog to "Search" and off he darts. I follow my dog as he leads the way. I let him work since he can smell the odor and I do not know where it is located. As he works, if I feel he is stuck, this is where my performance anxiety kicks in. If my dog didn't find the odor within the first 30-50 seconds, then I know this will be a bit of a challenge.Tthat challenge is what sends my brain into freeze mode. As my anxiety increases, my sensitive dog worries and starts fringing. Fringing is when the dog is indicating on odor, but is not at the odor source. Nose Work dogs are taught to go to source. There are many reasons why a dog will fringe, one of the times my dog Mickey fringes is when I'm frozen, my brain is not working and I'm lost what to do. When my dog alerts at the wrong place for odor, it increases my stress and performance anxiety. This in turns stresses my dog and we get into these fringing cycles. The tension and stress in me is also amplified when people are watching me, and just on the tip of trying to tell me what I did wrong. You see them slightly leaning forward with their eyes a little bit wider. When you have anxiety, criticism is difficult to process. You are in a heightened state and learning is very little. I shut down.

      To make matters worse, I have a vision impairment. Completely blind with no light perception in the right eye, while the left eye I see only 20/70 with an excess amount of floaters that can get in the way of my field of vision at the wrong time. I also have a constant white film in my view. My retina has been overly stretched to cover a large eye ball that distorts what I see, thus clarity is lost. I also periodically get flashes of light. When I change light, like coming from outside and going in or vise versa, it takes about 5 or more minutes for my eye to adjust and I get grey or white outs. My ability to see contrast is low and many times I do not see objects because of this. I have only about 35% of my vision to work.

     With my vision limitation, I could miss that ever so subtle indication my dog found source if he's in a fringing mode. However, when my Mickey is not fringing, his alerts are clear. That is when I can look like a great handler. But spectators when they know where the odor is, they are able to know if the dog is alerting much more than the handler when they know their dog fringes. People judge. This is a huge stress while others see it and I can't. Their advise usually doesn't help because they do not understand my limitations. My situation needs to be approached in a little bit different way. One way of teaching something is not a one size fits all.

     Every person has their particular "fear" thing that causes their performance to be altered. They were able to perform well in their backyard, in their own studio or some other familiar place. Some people have an intense fear talking in front of an audience, dancing at parties, singing in front of friends, or even competitions. 

     While I am zoning out with anxiety, my brain is flooded with chemicals of my body which changes my thinking process. My vision and hearing perception changes; It won't be the same as in practice.  But on the flip side sometimes the brain in flight or fight mode can work for you. If I am not completely zonedout and I can focus, the nerves help me perform better. That's the balance I seek. Use my nervousness to succeed and not let the nervousness turn into anxiety.   

      The challenge I have seen with Nose Work is, you have to think on your feet in helping your dog, when they haven't found the odors. What area have I covered? Where did my dog alert to odor? Let the dog lead the way, but when a dog is missing the hide, you do need to step in. Stepping in takes a quick thinking process of assessing many factors and trying it out with your dog to see if that helps them locate the hide. This will be places like pockets where odor hangs or where odor pushes to a corner, and the dog can't source where the source is located. The dog's behavior usually gives the indication. However, when you have performance anxiety, trying to think through a process can be hard. It is unlike a rehearsed routine where you build motion memory. I have been in situations I had stage fright, but having practice the routine over 100 times, my body subconsciously knew what to do next. After a few thousand various searches in different environments, I hope to get close to my body subconsciously knowing what to do next.

       As I have moved up in Nose Work, I noticed that my anxiety of people watching me was getting worse. I thought as I moved up in the ranks, I wouldn't have this  anxiety. This is different from being nervous. Nervous is something where you are excited, but able to perform. Being nervous says you still care. But, my performance anxiety was different. It was crippling and getting worse as I moved up the ranks. Nose Work was starting not to be fun and I was stressing my dog.

      I remember from the late 80's how I would shut down when I did sheep herding. When my dog would get too excitable around the sheep, my instructor would take over so my dog wouldn't get in the habit of dive bombing the sheep. But what she was doing is taking over and not teaching me how to teach my dog not to dive bomb. When I was in my very first sheep herding trial, I froze, and the sheep ran right past me with my dog driving behind. I was so use to my instructor taking over, that under stress, I just did the same behaviors as when I was in practice, freeze and let the instructor take over. But, this doesn't work in a trial. 

      Having grown up a disabled child, I was so use to people taking over what I did. They didn't have patience to walk me through the situation, they just took over. This happens often with disabled children who are not fast enough, don't see something or hear something to take the quick action that an average person does. It kind of takes out the confidence of the person.

      What this has done is when someone watches me, I freeze because I think they are going to take over, or make a judgement. People are so quick to tell someone what they are doing wrong, that they don't see where the person is coming from first. They want to tell, not coach or mentor. With so many situations of tell, it created a life long pattern of freezing when ever I did something when people watched me. Even with computers, because it takes me a few seconds longer to find something on the computer screen, I'm constantly having people point it out to me where it is, rather than them allowing me just a few more seconds to do it on my own. 

     On top of that, just like everyone, we have an ego. We want to do and succeed well. We all want to be regarded as a great handler and people look up to us. This is imbedded in who we are as a person. If we have enough successes in our lives, we have built the confidence, but when you have people demeaning or making judgements on you, like those who have a disability because you don't function as fast, or take a little longer, it takes a toll. You need to really dig down and focus on what you want a lot more.

     I have dabbled in dog sports for 25 years. I never had been able to stick to a dog competition until  Nose Work. I'm working through my anxiety issues which are allowing me to move forward. Sometimes getting older doesn't solve a problem, but working through it does.

     In the book "The Science and psychology of Music Performance: Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning" edited by Richard Parncutt and Gary McPherson, I find comfort that I am not alone. Even though the book is for musicians, I see the same patterns for an athlete. I guess performing in dog sports would put me as an athlete? What ever, I see the same issues. Paraphrasing the book, it talks about the flight or fight response, but in a performance, we can't run away or punch out the judge! We need skills of cognitive therapy to help our mind set.

     Public humiliation is a big fear of people and even the most skilled persons can choke up. The book talks about the fear of negative evaluations by others. Perfectionism, having too high expectations can be a big interference in performance and an over concern about small mistakes and flaws. Too much focus on what is wrong, than what is going well. Performance anxiety is also closely related to other social phobias and characteristic traits of certain personalities. Perfectionists tend to be very self-critical and as a consequence, suffer from low self-esteem. We can't forget self personal control, which can also really cause issues in performance. High personal and social standard together with low personal control showed in a study by Mor, Day Flett (1995) to be debilitating.

      High unrealistic expectations tied to a social aspect was more debilitating than high expectation from self. So this means we really are affected by how others perceive us and what they expect from us. This explains why I tend to focus too much on what others think. 

       An interesting research article, "Effects of a Motivational Climate Intervention for Coaches on Young Athletes’ Sport Performance Anxiety" by Ronald E. Smith, Frank L. Smoll, and Sean P. Cumming from University of Washington, that explains very similar concepts on performance anxiety as the last article. It states:

          "Children who are high in sport performance anxiety appear to be especially
sensitive to fears of failure and resulting negative social- and self-evaluation. Passer
(1983) found that high anxiety children worried more frequently about making
mistakes, not playing well, and losing than did their low-anxiety counterparts.
They also were more concerned than low anxiety children about how they would
be evaluated by their coaches, peers, and parents, and they had stronger expectancies
that failure would elicit criticism from these significant others. Other studies
have yielded similar findings (Gould, Horn, & Spreeman, 1983; Rainey, Conklin,
& Rainey, 1987; Smith et al., 2002)."

              Focus on mistakes and worrying about failure was also talked about in the other resources on this topic. Further, these children are worried about criticism and how peers, coaches and parents would perceive them. Interesting pattern.

                The research article further states that coaches of today focus on not doing well in a particular situation or not winning is feedback. Goals, attitudes and values are extremely important in how a child perceives a game and their performance. Extensive evaluated feedback about their ability reminds me so much of my positive reinforcement training with animals. You see where your child is, you see the final behavior, and set a plan unique to the individual player. Shape them to become better. This article does talk about focus is on improvement and supporting team mates. Support is important in the young ages. I often wonder, were the criticism of kids is what still plays in my head today? I remember so clearly in middle school when playing soft ball, the boys who were smirking at me ran right up to me when I was going to hit a ball. They figured I couldn't hit it well because I was a "retard" who couldn't do it. I did hit the ball over their heads and did see the shocked look on their faces. But this was the attitude I got from many kids when I was younger. They all thought I was a "retard." 

     Perhaps since kids ridiculed me, teased me and acted towards me I couldn't really do anything, it stuck with me all these years. Even some adults see me as different and patronize me as if I could never succeed as them. I could never rise to "their" level. I got a lot of this in my life. And now I'm working on a plan to change this thinking.

     I had a few sessions with a sport psychologist. What a world of difference it made in my performance. I learned to focus what I need and not to clutter my brain with other thoughts that are not productive at that moment. We worked out a plan what to focus on in a trial, step-by-step. When this happens, what are you going to do? I also have a methodical approach now when I come up to the start line. It is all about focus. 

     Another reason why focus training is so crucial to me is having stage 4 kidney disease, the toxins my kidneys cannot filter out, affect my concentration. It is very difficult to keep focus on thought. The sport psychologist had also helped me to keep focus in other areas of my life which my kidney disease was causing problems. 

      We have to remember that dogs are sensitive and when we get upset we messed up, they feel this and become stressed. Mickey now fringes less because I am more focused. I reduced my expectations to task, rather than ego dream. For example, focus on how my dog is searching and help them and not think about getting a great score. That comes later and is useless information during your run. Your brain over loads when you think of too many things, so only think of tasks to do well and nothing else.

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